Thursday, March 31, 2011

POLL: Firefox 4.0 vs Chrome/ium under Linux

Now that Firefox 4 has been available long enough to get an actual taste of its capabilities, I think it is a good moment to check out where it stands. Personally, I have to admit I have been positively surprised by the obvious improvement I have seen over the Betas. Back in testing days, I knew about the new features that were being implemented, most notably a faster rendering engine (Gecko 2.0), tabs groups and synchronization, but none of them seemed to be working that well. I think I was not alone in thinking Firefox 4.0 was coming late and would not live up to its expectations. Boy, was I wrong.

In my experience, judging by the posts and comments I read and hear, it seems both Firefox and Google Chrome/Chromium are the top choices for Internet browsers in Linux. Firefox was probably comfortably leading not that long ago, but because of the continuous delays in the development of version 4.0, the obvious limitations in version 3.6.x and the ferocious Chrome/ium improvement rate, many users have already made the switch. At this moment, I believe Firefox is still probably the king, but certainly no longer leading that comfortably.


The aim of this article is to serve as an introduction for the poll that I will keep open for some weeks, but in order to provide a bit more context and discussion material, I would like to share what I consider good about both browsers. I will discuss the not so good bits in the next section.

Firefox 4.0

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  • Great Integration in Linux Systems. System application defaults are recognized and most often used correctly. The Java plugin, onboard audio/video players or PDF readers, to name just a few, all work as expected. On a different note, but also important, Firefox can look completely native in both GNOME and KDE.

  • True Commitment. Along the same lines, Mozilla has demonstrated true interest in delivering to the Linux community, keeping their Linux releases almost completely aligned with the Windows ones.

  • Lightning Fast. The new Gecko 2.0 engine has proven its worth. I no longer notice any difference in speed when browsing with Firefox or Chrome/ium. They react differently, Firefox apparently waiting a bit longer to load web pages contents, but displaying them almost entirely when they are loaded. Chrome/ium seems to start displaying stuff as soon as it gets it, but then takes just as long to display the whole thing.

  • Extensive Extension Catalog. Firefox was the first to implement extensions massively and it played a significant role in its success. Most of the extensions available have been migrated and made available for Firefox 4.0 by now.

  • Extreme Customization Flexibility. Anything from the thousands of great themes available to the more recently released "personas" screams custom. One can get Firefox to look radically different from the default theme. Personas and Themes are kept once downloaded, so it is extremely easy to switch back to that favorite theme you haven't used in a while.

    Click on image to enlarge.

  • Tab Groups. Not a feature that I use a lot, but I am sure it will be a blessing for some. I have to admit I like how Opera implemented this idea better, though.

  • Save or Run. Maybe a minor thing for others, but I love how Firefox allows me to save or run/display contents when I click on a download link. Most of the time I have no interest in keeping stuff that I only want to read/watch/listen to once.

  • Simplify to your liking. There is a tendency lately to oversimplify interfaces, strip them down to the core basics. I definitely agree in that I don't like clutter and bloat, but sometimes stripping down can get too far. Not with Firefox, though, I think Mozilla has done a great job in finding the right balance, removing bloat while keeping functionality and flexibility pretty much untouched.


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  • Web App Store and Web Apps. Ever since Google released the Google Chrome Web Store, I have thought that it was the best thing about this browser. Granted, most Cloud apps can run on any browser, but the great interface in the browser and the store itself are a master move by Google.

    Click on image to enlarge.

    While it is disappointing to see that some apps are nothing more than glorified bookmarks, there are some interesting projects going on which provide deep levels of integration with Google accounts and APIs. While this is not necessarily exclusive to Chrome/ium, integration is as native as it gets. (It is amazing what one can do by simply signing up for a Gmail account!!)

  • Fast Development Pace. Everything about this project is smoking fast, development being no exception, which means support for new technologies/standards is often made available earlier than in other browsers.

  • Quick Browsing. Probably the most popular feature in Chrome/ium, browsing speed has been the motto ever since the project took its first steps. The WebKit project certainly adds to that.

  • Extensive Extension Catalog. Following the trend started by Firefox, Chrome/ium now offers a large set of extensions as well. While the Firefox catalog is probably larger and richer, Chrome/ium extensions offer unbeatable integration with Google services, which is a big plus for anybody using them.

  • Web Standards. Probably the only browser that can claim a 100% score in Acid3 tests.

  • Google Love. Google is certainly a force to be reckoned with. The endless list of services and applications available gets even better when one closes the loop with the enhanced integration offered by its own products. Chrome/ium users will always benefit from such integration, as they are part of the loop to begin with. The Chrome/ium extension that provides connection to one's Android device is a good example.


Firefox 4.0

  • Not Google. Hardly a Firefox problem, but in the same way iOS users will always sorely miss the native integration Android users get for anything and everything Google, Firefox users may find it annoying to have to miss on some of those features.

  • Fat bottomed. Much improved in version 4.0, but Firefox is still a bit lazy when starting up for the first time in a given session.

  • Sloppy Synch. Yes, it's mostly fixed now (quite a headache during Beta testing) but the synch feature still lacks in certain areas. For example, I like to keep my bookmark bar pretty crowded with icons (see Firefox screenshot above), but I find it frustrating that those icons are not transferred as part of the synch. In other words, when I start a new Firefox 4.0 session on a new computer, I can't see those icons until each one of the sites linked is loaded. In other words, I am forced to click on every bookmark and wait until every icon is downloaded if I want to see them all!

    Aside from that, I can't say I am a fan of the way synch was designed in Firefox. Yes, it's probably designed with more than one device kind in mind (Firefox 4.0 mobile has just been released), but it still feels cumbersome when compared with Chrome/ium's design.

  • Web Standards. While the latest updates have got Firefox to an impressive 97% in the Acid3 test, it still misses out in some areas.

  • Independent tabs? One feature that was much missed in previous versions of Firefox and that was meant to debut for Firefox 4.0, but is still missing. Unlike Chrome/ium and other modern browsers, which generate a separate process for each tab, Firefox 4.0 and all its tabs still work as a single one. In other words, a non-responding tab could still potentially knock it down. Having said so, while this may sound like a significant flaw, it really isn't, not in my experience, at least. I spend lots of time browsing the Web with both Chrome/ium and Firefox and so far I can't say such feature has made much of a difference. I very rarely stumble across a non-responding page, but when I do, it often knocks down Chrome/ium as well, even if that is supposedly not meant to happen.


  • Poor Linux integration Probably the thing that bugs me most when using Chrome/ium in Linux is its poor integration. Not only it is almost impossible to make it look native, specially on KDE, but better integration with the system settings and applications is a big miss.

  • Lack of commitment Even if Google is massively taking advantage of Linux and its free (as in beer and as in freedom) nature, they don't seem to be too concerned with providing great support for the Linux community. In fact, the Google Chrome version of Linux is constantly suffering from lack of features when compared to its Windows relative.

  • The simpler the better? Undoubtedly the Chromium project has changed the way we think and interact with a web browser. With a very simplified structure, Chrome/ium appealed to lots of people who were tired of using overcomplicated and bloated browsers. Having said so, it kind of bugs me that I have no input in the features that get thrown away. I would rather have them in there and be able to disable those I don't use.

  • Poor themes. Theming in Chrome/ium feels like a "forced" feature, one that was not part of the project requirements to start with but had to be introduced later on. I am not sure if that is the case, but Chrome/ium themes are somewhat poor, limited to a mere background change. While this may appeal to some, it's clear the level of customization is nowhere near that of Firefox.

  • Save it or Save it?. Yes, probably just a personal thing, but I hate that I am forced to download files (ie. zip, tar, torrent, etc), then double click on them to start the corresponding application.

  • No customization history. This one I plain don't understand. Download a new theme and you lose the one you were using... What tha...?


I have listed some of the things I like and dislike about both these browsers, but let me make myself clear: I consider both top quality material.

When I started testing Firefox 4 Beta, I felt I could put an end to using two browsers in Linux. Firefox offered the better integration and stability, but Chromium was the main option for casual browsing due to its superior speed. That idea has materialized now that Firefox 4.0 is available. Today I keep my Firefox instances in synch, get the most out of its superb system integration and stability, enjoy its awesome browsing speed and have fun customizing the heck out of it. Yes, Firefox 4.0 is my Internet browser of choice in Linux (I am sticking to Google Chrome on Windows, though).

Let me know what your choice is (for Linux!) by voting on the Poll at the top right of this page.



  1. Chromium HAS commitment. You should meet Fabien Tassin and ;)

  2. @Fitoschido: Chromium is definitely committed in certain areas, like providing PPAs, but because they must be aligned with Google Chrome, Chromium does not provide better Linux integration than Google Chrome, for example. That's what I mean when I mention that lack of commitment.

  3. Ok Chema, a really interesting overview.
    I have a question, can you see the differences of font rendering between the two browsers on KDE? For me its obvious.
    On KDE Chromium looks better, maybe because of Webkit, I have no idea? Firefox is just terrible even if I tweak it.
    On Gnome, especially Ubuntu they look both good.
    Its true, the Firefox integration in Linux distros is better as Chromium, the menus and so on, you can just make it more native as with Chrome especially on Ubuntu but this font rendering on KDE is annoying of Firefox, maybe because its a GTK app. Maybe its just me.
    In the end I made the switch last year to Chromium because it was just faster and Firefox came too late for me. Now I have both and am using Firefox only for Zotero.

  4. @David: Really? I get the complete opposite. In my case, I hate how Chromium completely ignores my KDE theme and users its own set of controls. When I am using Oxygen, it uses ClearLooks (which I am guessing is closer to GTK). Let's not forget Chromium offers to use either its own theme or GTK, so that should be a hint for how its integration should go in KDE.

    Font rendering in KDE is an issue for me on both, but probably less on Firefox. Using the Oxygen GTK theme, Firefox gets a bit closer to looking like a KDE app. That's not the case with Chromium, at least as far as my experience goes.

    I recommend using the Oxygen GTK theme if you are using KDE. It should have no impact on your KDE apps (as long as you are using Oxygen, of course), but it should improve the looks of GTK apps somehow. You can get it here:

    Good luck!

  5. @Chema: I have installed yet Oxygen GTK but no difference.
    Maybe I have something on my eyes. :)
    Firefox looks pretty cool now on KDE but the fonts are ugly for me.
    All GTK apps look yet almost perfect but the fonts on all of the apps do not, thats my concern.
    I have also installed this new theme for Firefox for KDE, very good one.

    Anyway thanks for your reply, Im testing KDE 4.6.1 intensiveley now and I like it really much, for me the best KDE release so far.

  6. There is a improved Chrome called Iron. It's a nice try.

    But recently I prefer Firefox because I don't trust Google.

    Opera is also a good choice.

    Nice site. Very useful for newbies to Linux, like me.

    After testing a lot of distros Arch is my choice.


  7. On Windows its Chrome for me. On linux its Firefox (4). Both very close to "Great" each one.

    Great review.

  8. hi,

    i am new (new in the world of linux) but i have liked linux much (without even knowing it) because of its security. I request to all (anybody) to please let me know or suggest which linux distro should I go for at first knowing that i know nothing in linux but just want to start with. Please suggest such that I can learn as well as do all the basic works, like for example, office documentation, listening music, net surfing (inc. bank transactions). audio-video downloading, movie watching, taking prints, etc.. etc. basic work

    my email is

    The main point of confusion for me is either from openSUSE, Ubuntu, Fedora or PCLinuxOS? Which one to start with and to stick with??

  9. I will not email you, but I can reply to your question here.

    If you want my opinion, out of the options you provide, I would start with either Ubuntu or PCLinuxOS. They are very different, but they are both great end products with great features and easy of use.